Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Breaking down social walls the key to building lasting peace in Northern Ireland

Merely tolerating the 'other side' will not deliver the future we want. Problems of educational under-achievement and separate housing will remain intractable until we confront sectarianism head-on, writes Peter Osborne

Slow progress: A Twelfth of July parade moves off from Carlisle Circus in north Belfast

This part of the world is a great place to live. We have come a long way in the last 15 or 20 years and the progress that has been made should be remembered as we manage the latest crisis, or deal with the disappointment of a process as yet unfulfilled.

Given the 30 years of painful conflict we all endured, it will take years, decades and maybe even generations for people to be genuinely reconciled, with a peace that is all that we want it to be. Building that peace is difficult work and no one should be criticised for trying to tackle the many challenges.

Political agreement, in 1998 and afterwards, is one thing, but building a lasting peace and creating an enduring reconciliation is the inevitable next, greater and, in reality, much more formidable challenge in a divided society, where even the whisper of ancestral voices still resonates loudly.

As events show, reconciliation is needed now more than ever, but is still a long way off. Relationships, trust and mutual respect have all been tested in recent months and years.

But while politicians may agonise over what they feel they can deliver, what possibilities they may sell, the actual business of peace-building and reconciliation carries on in towns and villages and at interfaces every day.

How we live together in this region is the most pressing issue of our time. We simply will not create sustainable, quality jobs without addressing good relations issues.

We will not tackle under-achievement in education, integrate housing and schools, or grow an invulnerable tourist product, without addressing sectarianism. Promoting good relations and reconciliation – the work of the Community Relations Council (CRC) and others – goes beyond politics and beyond a culture of tolerating and managing division. As a society, we deserve more than tolerance; and we have the aspiration and capacity for much more as well.

Peace-building is delivered by people who reach out beyond their comfort zone and, at times, at personal risk. Much of that work, often led by, facilitated and funded by CRC, goes unrecognised and unrewarded. It can be courageous and innovative; it often has global significance, with lessons for other regions in, or coming out of, conflict.

It is work that CRC has been instrumental in supporting for many years; quietly and courageously working to embed the peace and live in a society that aspires to move beyond tolerance.

Here are just a few examples of what the Community Relations Council has been delivering:

* CRC has led the way, in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund, in establishing guidance on best practice in the development of commemorations, particularly relating to the current decade of centenary anniversaries. How we commemorate the past tells us more about how we live together today. But understanding our past is important in understanding the present and shaping a better future.

We have produced a series of resources and held events to encourage an inclusive approach to understanding our past. This material is freely available on the CRC website.

* CRC also plays a pivotal role in enabling dialogue across the interface barriers, or "peace walls". In addition to providing support for the invaluable network of interface workers and cross-community projects, CRC has produced guidance on the process for transformation and removal of interface barriers, which has been incorporated in the structures for dialogue used by the Department of Justice.

* Every year, CRC produces an independent Peace Monitoring Report to help measure progress towards peace. Drawing on publicly available information, the reports encourage reflection on the distance we have travelled, as well as the challenges remaining. This report provides important strategic direction in moving forward.

These examples – and so many other projects – are important as we play our part in delivering commitments made in the OFMdFM strategy, Together Building a United Community.

This year and next will be a critical period for reviewing the delivery of peace-building and reconciliation. We need to get it right or we will be failing the next generations.

CRC is up for the challenge of working with others to explore new ways of developing new relationships and structures. But these must be the right structures, with challenging and measurable targets adopted for moving our disunited community toward a more productive, shared future, founded on mutual respect and equality. And we need to ensure that there is sufficient and enduring support for those delivering on-the-ground, properly recognising the courageous, the ground-breaking and the genuinely transformational.

This task of building the peace and making reconciliation happen is too important to be focussed only on the latest need for political compromise – important as that is. Reconciliation is too crucial to be defined by what is possible politically, rather than what is needed for and with the whole community.

Indeed, peace and reconciliation should define the nature of our politics – not the other way around.

Moving beyond tolerance is, therefore, a task that, while part of a political process, is beyond politics.

On this front, responsible civic leadership within the community has already shown the way. Provided this strategy can be properly supported and resourced in the years to come, it has the potential to deliver so much more.